Christian Gerhaher baritone
Julian Banse soprano
Ivan Ludlow baritone
Sarah Maria Sun soprano
Annette Schönmüller soprano
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded live March 2018
Recording producer and editing: Andreas Werner
Recording engineer: Stefan Hächler
Assistant engineers: Alice Fischer and Philip Erdin
Cover sketches by Heinz Holliger / photo by Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Co-production of ECM Records/Opera Zurich/SRF 2 Kultur
Release date: April 22, 2022
I am my own echo, but one eternally rigid and pinned down.
An echo nailed to the rock.
Heinz Holliger’s Lunea, described by the Swiss composer as his “dream opera,” grew out of a song cycle of the same name for baritone and piano. By 2017, Holliger had reworked it into its present form for the stage. Based on the demise of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), who scribbled down outbursts during his years in an asylum, Lunea anagrams his name as a way of illuminating his poetic psychosis, thus hinting at the linguistic fragmentations we will encounter. As noted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, who seems born to sing this role: “Holliger presents these attempts on the part of the stricken poet to record his indescribable yet exquisitely traversed suffering—frightful and vivid experiences incapable of being communicated to another being.” And yet, communicate he does through a characteristically exquisite ear for nuance.
Whether by instinct or design, all of the artists of Holliger’s incidental interest, from Friedrich Hölderlin to Robert Schumann, are bound by the tattered thread of mental illness. His willingness to give them a mouthpiece through the score, of which language is a key instrument, finds a willing accomplice in Händl Klaus, whose libretto contextualizes 23 “leaves” in a space without linear order. Holliger’s approach to the text is microscopic in spirit but grand in scope. And yet, as Roman Brotbeck observes, “[N]othing is blurred; everything is as clear as glass and laid out by Holliger with maximum lucidity.”
Holliger and Klaus pieced the opera together through fragments written on paper slips, glued with phrases (both musical and oral-motor) into shape. In doing so, they sought to resolve each sentence (or even word within it) through interpretation. If any plot can be discerned in all of this, it is embodied in the character of Lenau himself, whose cogent coterie of family members and acquaintances populates a bare environment like projections of his many sides. Lenau’s alter ego is Anton Xaver Schurz (1794-1859), a constant companion throughout his illness who also married his sister and published a nearly 800-page biography of Lenau in 1855. The women in Lenau’s life, including Sophie von Löwenthal (a platonic lover), Marie Behrends (his fiancée), and sister Therese, lend worldliness (if not also wordiness) to his isolation.
Holliger’s love for speech abounds, as when he incorporates the character of Justinus Kerner, a physician and close friend who, in 1850 (the year of Lenau’s death) began making what he called “klecksographs”—inkblot pictures mirrored by folding pieces of paper into symmetrical images. Following this, the opera is symmetrically arranged around the stroke Lenau experienced in September 29, 1844. Long before that, the opening speaks is as if through a layer of rice paper. Low reeds and an intoning chorus give way to Lenau’s amorous deteriorations. This is the asylum, a space in which the mind has free reign even as the body is contained. Such is the contradiction of operatic space: a stage that delineates mise-en-scène while opening our hearts to its inner flames. Holliger understands this in both the most traditional and postmodern sense.
For Lenau, “Man is a beachcomber at the sea of eternity,” and so might we call the instruments, among which the violin, cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), and bassoon move as characters in their own right. Each slices mortality at a different angle, offering us unrepeatable cross-sections of emotional sediment. As waves of utterances and choral echoes navigate the scrapheap of a broken mind, we are privy to glimpses of recovery and tension in kind. Some of the most profound moments are shared between Lenau and Sophie. Their wordless breathing in the Fourth Leaf palpitates the ears. And it is Sophie who, in Leaf Nine, brings the most hopeful beauties into focus. Such respite is brief and occasional, as in the skyward harmonies of the Sixth Leaf, whereas the most powerful interruptions (such as that by Sophie again in the Eleventh Leaf) make the morbid grays and charcoals of the opera’s fulcrum that much more morose.
In one key scene, played out in the Fourteenth Leaf, Lenau leaps from the window in desperation before bowing the violin in a cathartic dance of healing. What follows from here to the end is a reversion into childhood (Fifteenth Leaf) before solitary madness sets in. Turning as a revolving door from one state of mind to another, the chorus voices the multiplicity of his demise. The final part is a gravelly expression of death borders that burrows into the reptilian brain.
While Lunea is a chain of intimate fascinations as only Holliger can link, it is best appreciated with the booklet in hand, ready to absorb the fragments at hand and assemble them into your own whole. Its brilliance comes to life through the heartbeat of its concepts. Then again, the disorientation of not knowing where our ears might land next is appropriate enough when scrutinizing a mind that might never have demanded more. Hence the significance of Gerhaher being the only singer who doesn’t perform multiple rolls, at once emphasizing Lenau’s splintered cognizance and his insistence on maintaining an identity through it all. For a man who saw the moon as “a luminous, drifting tomb,” death was, perhaps, the only certainty.